She claimed she was “a little old woman on the edge of nowhere” even though this was far from the truth.
Emily Carr’s art was innovated and challenged the traditional boundaries of art in the early 20th century. This secured her rightful place in history as a transformative artist, especially as her dynamic style drew attention to the importance of Vancouver’s First Nations people.
I can only imagine the determination necessary to follow her passion and the critical role of her spirited personality to break through so many cultural challenges. It’s obvious in her body of work and relentless commitment to honoring the culture of Western Canada’s Native people. In many ways, Carr woke a country to the history of its people with one simple too: her art.
Art was a conversation starter and, what’s more, Carr’s prolific body of work was created at a time when female artists were not appreciated. That’s why Carr’s proclamation about her place on the edge of nowhere is so misleading. She said this in response to the curator of the Vancouver Gallery of Art who expressed an interest in her work despite the push-back that Carr felt from the art community out west.
“The men resent a woman getting any honour in what they consider is essentially their field. Men painters mostly despise women painters. So I have decided to stop squirming, to throw any honour in with Canada and women.”
Big Raven (1930)
In countless ways, Carr faced and overcame rejection. She broke away from the post-impressionist movement, choosing rich, colorful hues over softer colors and typical lines that previously ruled her initial work.
Her bold shift in style and paintings explored Indigenous subjects and screamed her unapologetic attitude.
An example was Carr’s quick dismissal as an art teacher hired by the Ladies’ Art Club of Victoria, B.C. in 1905. She was fired after just a month because her female students disliked her smoking, cursing and brash social ideas.
But Carr remained undaunted and fascinated with the beauty of the environment and its Aboriginal people.
Having grown up watching them trade with the British along the waterways by her home, she admired their spirited connection to nature and their expressive art.
Worried about the effects of the English influence – especially their destructive logging practices and rush towards Industrialism – Carr did what so many disruptors in history do. She ignored what her students and others thought, and poured her energies into her work which showcased the environment.
Photo credit Virtual Museum of Canada: Odd and Ends (1939)
In her painting above, Odds and Ends, Carr describes “the cleared land and tree stumps shift the focus from the majestic forest landscapes that lured European and American tourists to the West Coast to reveal instead the impact of deforestation.”
Carr’s use of her position is fascinating because few women born in British Columbia in 1871 had the privileges she did. As one of nine children raised in lavish English tradition, Carr’s British parents were what Carr called “more British than the British.” (See photos below. I took these on a visit to Emily’s home in Victoria, B.C.)
Their home was located in a prestigious neighborhood that made Carr’s artistic pursuits downright rebellious.
Carr lived down the street from the legislative buildings and government center in a row of houses called the “Birdcage Walk”. Here, as a young girl, Carr watched the Aboriginal people trading in commerce along the waterways close to her home.
While her parents provided every educational privilege and opportunity for her to study art at the San Francisco Art Institute, and later in Europe during the late 1890s through the early 1900s, Carr used her art to break free from her proverbial “cage.” She did this with colors and brushstrokes, in ways that gave the paintings life.
In a sense, Carr felt reborn with the new skills she acquired abroad and the radical artistic approach she took to conveying the effects of destructive logging and Industrialism on the Indigenous way of life.
Photo credit from Gallery of Winnipeg: Lone Cedar (1936)
When Carr’s work eventually captured the interest of influential people like the director of Canada’s National Art Gallery, she participated in an exhibit showcasing Aboriginal art in Ottawa. It exposed her to larger audiences in London, Paris, Washington, DC, and Amsterdam. This led to other major Canadian city-tours, including one in 1935 at the Art Gallery of Toronto.\
Canadians soon saw what Carr did after her visits to over 50 different trips to remote Aboriginal villages, over a 34-year period between 1899 and 1933. She documented what she saw using her modernist approach to vanishing totem poles and villages wiped out by diseases like smallpox.
Her sketches of places like “Guyasdoms, Mimquimlees, and Tsatsisnukomi in the Kwakwaka wakw villages” grabbed forced audiences to recognize the lost livelihood of Canada’s Indigenous population. This gave Carr a greater sense of purpose especially when her modern perspective caught the attention of the famous Group of Seven.
They were supportive, especially A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris. This helped to fuel Carr’s ability to see the beauty and potential of her work. When Harris spent time encouraging Carr and welcoming her as one of the group, he helped to bridge the gender divide. Carr’s confidence, in turn, took flight: “Paining on my own vision now, [I am] thinking of no one’s else’s approach and trying to express my own reactions.”
With this, Carr’s techniques continued to flourish and in some of her work, she seems to animate the trees and sky with the power of her large, colorful brushstrokes. I can imagine her sweeping the bristles of her brushes off the sides of the canvas and hoping people would eventually appreciate art as more than decoration and design. For Carr, she wanted “to lift the looker with it, sky, sea and trees affecting each other.” (Photo credit Art Gallery of Winnipeg: Big Eagle, and painting below photo credit goes to the Globe and Mail for Carr’s, Crooked Staircase, 1930).
Even when Carr’s health began to fadem she soldiered on and penned her first book, Klee Wyck. The title came from the Nuu Chah Nulth First Nations and means “one who tends to laugh.” Her book was an honest account of her visits to the First Nations communities and won the Governor General’s Award.
Carr captured the Canadian spirit with her art, infusing it with the landscape of our Indigenous people and nature.
“On November 28, 2013, one of Carr’s paintings, The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase) sold for $3.39 million at a Toronto art auction.
It’s value speaks less to the marketability of Carr and more to her originality, strength of character and dedication to preserving the art and spirit of Canada’s Indigenous people, Carr challenges each of us to forge our own path in life and preserve our truest values beyond decorative design.